28th August 2019, 09:34 | league_1

My 21 years in Rugby League - Oliver Wilkes

My 21 years in Rugby League - Oliver Wilkes

It’s been an emotional day, driving up to Workington and telling my team-mates I’m retiring from being a professional Rugby League player. I’m 39, been a professional since 1998, more than half my life, so tomorrow morning will feel strange, waking up and starting a new chapter.

After more than 500 games and exactly 100 career tries I felt I’d nothing more to prove. I had surgery on my knees six weeks ago and they don’t feel any better. I’d be three weeks or so getting back to fitness and I don’t want to take someone else’s’ shirt for the play-offs so it’s time to go.

My mind says yes, my body says no.

I’ve come full circle with Chris Thorman. When I signed for Sheffield Eagles, my first professional club, I shared a house with Chris and now he’s my last coach. We had a long chat today and he knows I’ve made my mind up. He respects my decision and knows how I feel. He’s a good bloke.

I came back to Cumbria to live in my hometown of Ulverston and finish my career at Barrow. Things didn’t work out that way and when I left Barrow I wasn’t ready to retire and I went to Workington. I couldn’t have chosen a better club at which to finish. Workington treated me like a professional rugby player and with respect. The guys that are running the club are so passionate about Town and the game of Rugby League. They deserve nothing more than success and I hope down the line that the club is thriving again.

Where did it all start? I was an amateur playing for Ulverston, got picked for Cumbria Under 18s. We played Lancashire at Oldham St Anne’s which is Steve Deakin’s club. Steve was assistant coach to John Kear at Sheffield at the time, he saw me play, watched me again against Yorkshire and there I was going down to Sheffield to sign. It was eight days before the Challenge Cup Final which of course they won with that famous win over Wigan. I thought ‘Wow’ I’ve signed for the Cup winners. A few months later I was making my debut at St Helens.

Growing up my heroes were lots of the great Wigan team, the Iro brothers, Kevin and Tony, Andy Gregory, but especially Ellery Hanley. And some days I’d pretend to be Kurt Sorensen of Widnes. And then Adrian Morley came along and I tried to model my game on him. Like him I started off as a wide running second row and ended up in the middle. His career went to a far higher level than mine but it was awesome to play against him in Super League.

I remember playing against him one day and something happened in a tackle. He’s the only player that’s scared me on a field. He looked at me, pointed at me and had his angry face on. I thought I’d got in his little black book but fortunately got through the game unscathed. Off the field he was fine and we laugh about it now.

So how do you play so long? Well I was lucky to get such a great grounding at my amateur club at Ulverston. Stuart Wilkinson was coach and he had a big influence on me. I learnt how to fall, how get my head on the right side of the tackle. I’d like to say I developed my skills, but I never really had any. Grass roots rugby is so important for kids. You learn self-preservation, tackling techniques, things that hold you in good stead for the rest of your career. Amateur clubs have such a big part to play in the game and we must never lose sight of that.

Skills you develop over time, an early catch and an early pass, doing things right automatically and repeatedly. As a full-time player you’ll spend hours say passing a ball through a tyre, maybe three hundred times in a session. Practice makes perfect every time. Being a player at the top level is all about training your body to do things repeatedly to perfection. That’s the biggest difference between Super League and the rest, the game’s a lot quicker and the catching and passing is so superior to the less skilful players down the leagues.

I’ve always had the belief that to do well in this game you have to run harder than your opposition, destroy the person you’re up against. Sometimes I’ve followed that with a total disregard for my own safety. The worst thing for me was when they outlawed the shoulder charge as that was a big part of my armoury.
I was fortunate to have John Kear as my first professional coach. He’s been a big influence on my career and I’ve always had a soft spot for him. He got me back into Super League in 2007 when things went wrong at Widnes and I went on to have six great years. If you want someone to get you up for a big game, there’s no one better than John.

Where did I enjoy my time the most? I had a great time at London, I absolutely loved it down there and it was a shame it ended after two years. I had two spells at Wakefield and rugby wise they were good years for me at a great traditional club but I don’t regret anywhere I’ve played. Rugby’s a game where you make friends all over the spot and there’s handful of guys I’ve played with that’ll remain friends for life.

Being a Wigan fan as a kid I couldn’t believe it when one day I got a phone call and it was Ian Millward on the other end. He asked me if I’d like to play for Wigan. I signed straight away. It wasn’t about the money. The experience of playing there was unbelievable and though I only had a short time at Wigan it was a dream come true for me.

Regrets? Maybe that I should have tried a bit harder when I was young. I was in my mid 20s before I realised I had to model my career on hard work and dedication.

Advice? The most important thing I’d say to any young player is education comes first. Make sure you go to college, to university if you want to, get your studying done. Rugby’s a short career and you need something to fall back on. I did my safety training when I was playing and that enabled me to step into a job with a future at a decent salary when I stopped being a full-time player, rather than settling for a dead-end job on minimum wage.

The last three clubs I’ve been at, I’ve been captain, Leigh, Barrow and Workington. That’s a big honour. I enjoyed my second spell at Leigh, we had some success and it’s a club that should be pushing not only to get into Super League but to stay there. It needs not to rely on just one or two individuals, it needs the whole town backing it and they can achieve that.

I got to represent Scotland which was a very proud time for me. My grandad came from Campbelltown and my mum was born there. Representing Scotland was an amazing feeling and the first time I pulled on the jersey I kept thinking how proud my grandad would have been had he lived to see it. The Scotland coaches, John Duffy and Chris Chester, made me captain for what was my 500th senior game so that was really good of them and another great memory.

This year I got my 100th try, against West Wales down in Llanelli. I knew I was on 99 and I supported every break that day and I was determined to get over and finally managed it. I think I went in from 30 yards but in a few years’ time that 30 will have become a length-of-the-field effort I’m sure. But then I’ve always been very fast (laughs).

There are only a handful of players left who played in the 1990s: Paul Sykes, Micky Higham, Gareth Ellis, Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Benny Westwood and me. I think that’s it. They’ve all had great careers, been incredibly talented and dedicated. A few of them are retiring this year, just like me. And like me they’ll wake up the morning after and get emotional. But my little boy has started playing down at Ulverston and I go down and watch him. Hopefully he’ll get as much enjoyment out of Rugby League as his dad did.

Thank you to all that have supported me during my career.